The call to life: revitalizing a healthy Hawaiian identity

Soc Sci Med. 2005 Aug;61(4):809-20. doi: 10.1016/j.socscimed.2004.08.051. Epub 2004 Nov 24.


The meaning of health is typically defined as the absence of disease. This definition, while highlighting our ability to measure the physiological attributes of health through morbidity and mortality statistics in turn obscures alternative meanings of health. In this paper, I ask three questions about the meaning of health. First, is health simply the body without disease? Second, are there alternative meanings of health that are not solely informed by Enlightenment views of science and biomedicine? Third, in what ways does health give meaning to and inform social orders and our place within them? Drawing on interviews with Native Hawaiians conducted on the islands of Maui and Hawaii, this paper examines what it means to be a "healthy Hawaiian", and in doing so, problematizes meanings of health. For those I interviewed, definitions of health were embedded in understandings of what it means to be a Native Hawaiian and presented an opportunity to talk about the cultural and material dispossession of Native Hawaiians. These definitions also remind the present generation of the vitality of their ancestors. In remembering the life, health and subsequent dispossession of Hawaiian ancestors, contemporary Hawaiians are provided with an alternative definition of what it means to be a "healthy Hawaiian", thus raising serious questions about "health" as defined by biomedicine and how best to achieve it. This case illustrates how a focus on concepts of health elucidates the relationship between health and inequality as well as Native Hawaiian's agency in charting a positive direction for health that has meaning in the everyday life of Hawaiians.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Culture
  • Hawaii
  • Health Behavior
  • Health Status*
  • Humans
  • Interviews as Topic
  • Middle Aged
  • Personal Satisfaction*
  • Social Identification*